At VOCAL, we believe that people who have personally experienced mental health concerns can be the best people to know what creates a truly supportive mental health program. You’ve been there. You know what works.

One of the first questions groups that are forming often ask is, “Do we need to become a non-profit to offer peer support?”

You have Options for Organizing! Review the pros and cons of each and decide.

Not forming a 501(c)3

Advantages: you can focus your efforts on gathering peers together right away, small programs are simple and still effective, and there is much less paperwork.

Disadvantages:  you cannot apply for most grants (unless you find a partner organization who can, called a fiscal sponsor) and will need to raise money without being able to offer a tax advantage to donors.

Ideas of how to start:

Forming a 501(c)3

Advantages: you can apply for grants, hire staff, bill Medicaid…

Disadvantages:  can be very labor intensive to start up and requires ongoing training as the business aspects grow.

Ideas of how to start:

Selecting a Board of Directors or organizing team

Organizations go through stages of growth. To start a nonprofit or program, the people who may make strong board members may be different than those you’ll be looking for in 20 or 25 years. In the first few years of a nonprofit or program, you’ll want a team of people with interest in your mission and time to help do the research and outreach to become established in the community.

See our Board Development page for resources.

Writing a Measurable Mission Statement

Informal projects can benefit from a mission statement as much as a 501(c)3 programs, which are required to have one by the IRS.

A mission statement clarifies for the team involved and outside funders what you plan to do through your organization. We recommend writing your mission statement in a way that you can reasonably measure if you’re achieving those goals. A  measurable mission statement can also be a map for what data to collect to prove to funders that you are achieving the mission.

One way to do this is to create an “Impact Map”. To learn more, review this presentation on Impact Mapping by Dr. Mary Frances Porter. Here is a template for a generic peer-run program — feel free to work with your team to change as fits your work.  Learn more about how to evaluate a non-profit’s mission on our Evaluating Recovery Programs page.

Elements of Peer-Run Program Bylaws (or How Decisions Get Made)

Wherever two or more people are together, something has to establish how decisions get made. For corporations and non-profits, that is a legal document called the Bylaws. (NOTE: VOCAL cannot and does not give legal advice. Please consult an attorney.)

Most peer-run recovery support programs are membership organizations, which means that that are criteria to become a member and, once a member, you vote on certain questions. When a 501(c)3 non-profit is a membership organization, it is very important to be clear on each step of the membership and decision-making process and then to uphold each step. Otherwise, some decisions may not be legally binding.

As an example, see VOCAL’s Bylaws.

From working closely with Virginia’s community of peer-run non-profits, here are questions we’ve heard people ask and then clarify through Bylaws (You can see why it is helpful to consult an attorney):

  • What are the criteria to be a member of the program?
  • How often are membership meetings held?
  • How do members receive notice of the meeting and how far in advance?
  • What questions do members vote on?
  • Can members vote by phone, mail or email?
  • How many members need to vote for the vote to count?
  • How are members removed and for what cause?
  • What are the criteria to be a board member?
  • How are the board of directors elected?
  • How long does each board member serve?
  • How many times can one person serve?
  • How often are board meetings held?
  • How do board members receive notice of the meeting and how far in advance?
  • What questions do board members vote on?
  • Can board members vote by phone, mail or email?
  • How many board members need to vote for the vote to count?
  • Are all board members eligible to be voted in as an officer? Or do you need to serve a period of time first?
  • How are board officers elected?
  • How are board members removed and for what cause?
  • How is the organization dissolved if it no longer meets the mission?